Robert Neubecker

Ultrarunning made me a more resilient scientist

“YOU ARE AMAZING.” Those three words adorned the final slide of my most recent Research in Progress Seminar, which Ph.D. candidates in my program give annually to fellow students, postdocs, and faculty members. It’s an unconventional way to end a scientific talk. The inspiration comes from my experiences as an ultrarunner—an athlete who completes runs longer than a standard marathon. The core philosophy of the team I run with—the Some Work, All Play Adventure Team—is that the courage required to pursue any scary adventure is to be celebrated, independent of the outcome. This mentality has helped me tremendously in both my professional and personal pursuits, but it’s all too rare in the scientific community.

When I started to work toward my Ph.D. 5 years ago, my mindset was completely different. I believed we are defined by results. So, when I made the painful decision to leave my first Ph.D. program after spending my first year battling depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, I couldn’t help but see myself as a failure who was incapable of handling the challenges of graduate school. Despite knowing that my mental illness was neither a sign of weakness nor my fault, I felt as far from amazing as humanly possible. My love for research persisted, but I would need to make significant changes if I was ever going to thrive in academia.

I chose to continue my Ph.D. studies at my undergraduate institution, where I would be closer to family, friends, and familiar support networks. But my myopic pursuit of the perfect CV still left me unfulfilled, endlessly chasing outcomes that I expected would finally make me feel like a “successful” scientist.

That started to change when one of my classmates invited me to run a half-marathon. I had never run a race that long, but I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t the fastest finisher—far from it. But I was immensely proud that I had the courage to venture into unknown territory. For the first time in my life, I realized that embarking on a challenge can yield fulfillment, regardless of the outcome. I was hooked. Less than a year later, I was racing ultradistance trail events of up to 50 miles.

As any ultrarunner will attest, the highs of endurance sports do not come without extreme lows, too. By participating in a sport where setbacks are more common than successes, I developed a new relationship with failure. Perhaps it seems paradoxical, but when a hip injury forced me to walk at the end of a recent 50-mile race, my slowest miles were accompanied by my biggest smiles.

To be amazing is to have the courage to embark on a scary, uncertain adventure.

Earlier in my Ph.D., when experiments failed to support major hypotheses, I would shut down, unwilling to consider the possibility that embedded in the setback was an opportunity to try something new. These days, I still don’t like getting negative data. Who does? But I have become more resilient, perceiving obstacles as essential to achieving growth and finding meaning. The adage in ultrarunning is that a race is “life in a day,” because of all the highs and lows an endurance adventure brings. I prefer to think of a race as “a Ph.D. in a day.” Embracing this way of thinking has been transformative.

But I know that many of my fellow scientists struggle to acknowledge missteps or vulnerability, as I once did, which makes it far too easy to feel alone in “failing.” This is why I now end my talks with a “YOU ARE AMAZING” slide. To be amazing does not require achieving recognition, awards, or major publications. To be amazing is to have the courage to embark on a scary, uncertain adventure and journey into the vast unknown.

When this slide comes up, many audience members give an unmistakably authentic smile. Some talk to me afterward; others send messages thanking me. I’ve even received a few hugs along the way. Of course, some may quietly scoff at the slide. But they, too, are amazing.

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